Commending shrewdness

These are unique times. Unprecedented, I’m sure you’ve heard. I believe the circumstances we’re facing right now call for a leadership characteristic that most Christ-followers haven’t put any thought into: shrewdness. After all, doesn’t shrewdness suggest cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious characteristics? Yes. Yet Jesus twice urged his followers to grow in shrewdness. In fact, he said we should pay attention to shrewdness in the world around us and learn from it. So we must be missing something. Let’s take a look at what Jesus was trying to tell us through these instances.

The shrewd manager

In Luke 16:1-10, Jesus tells a strange parable about a manager. This man knows he is about to lose his job for mismanagement, so he uses his last days to settle accounts with each of his master’s debtors at 50¢ or 80¢ on the dollar. It doesn’t change the immediate outcome, but as he lets the manager go, the master commends the man’s shrewdness. Sometimes you just can’t help but shake your head at some people’s sheer audacity and cleverness.

So what exactly is Jesus commending in sharing this story, if it isn’t deceit or dishonesty? The big idea is in verse 9: The people of this world, even in their sinful actions, show more shrewdness within their context than the people of light do in theirs.

That negative contrast helps us understand something Jesus said earlier about a context very much like ours.

A critical pairing

After teaching his disciples for a year or two, Jesus decides it’s time for them to put their learning into action. It’s time for a mission trip. So he puts them in pairs and then shares some final thoughts in Matthew 10:16:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

They are heading into a context where they will be surrounded by people who hate and seek to destroy them, yet Jesus tells them to take nothing with them. Yes, they’re empty-handed, but with these two things—the shrewdness of a serpent and the innocence of doves—they have what they need.

The pairing is important because there are a lot of traps; Christ-followers’ practice of shrewdness cannot resemble the world’s. Rick Lawrence, who literally wrote the book on Shrewd, explains the nuance in Jesus’ instructions:

“The word He uses here for “serpent” is the same one He uses for Satan. And the word He uses here for “dove” is the same the Bible uses to describe the Holy Spirit. He’s telling His disciples to be as shrewd as Satan is, but as innocent as the Holy Spirit is.”

Remember that comparison Jesus made in Luke 16? The problem is that, while evil has practiced shrewdness, we’re not very good at it. Lawrence summarizes:

“Jesus wants us to study the shrewd ‘people of this world’ like they were textbooks, instead of complaining about them or picketing them or ignoring them or gossiping about them… He’s asking us to watch how shrewd people—even and especially those we’re repelled by—get things done.” (157-158)

Christians are still sheep in a world of wolves, but if we put these two passages together, it allows us to see that world of wolves as an opportunity—an opportunity for study and contextualization. Remember this caveat from Lawrence:

“It’s the tactics, not the heart, we’re to pay attention to—translating the ‘what and the why’… into redemptive resolve.” (163-164)

Jesus is sending us out with the same advice he gave long ago, but we’ve ignored or misunderstood at our peril. It’s time to re-invest in shrewdness. How do you build expertise? By study and by practice. But it starts with a change of perspective.

What successful traits then look like now: Shrewdness

In this series, we’re considering the question: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like?

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. I’ve covered resourcefulness and servant heart. The third one I want to propose is:

3. Shrewdness

This one has potential dangers. There are a lot of negative connotations to shrewdness, so stick with me as I unpack it. Certainly, shrewdness can suggest a cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious person. But I believe shrewdness itself is contextual, a competency that in itself is not good or bad, but overlays character. To someone of honesty and purity, shrewdness can add impact to the good they pursue. To someone of rotten character, shrewdness can make their evil formidable.

The critical point for me is that on two occasions, Jesus tells his followers they should be shrewd. Because that point is worth unpacking, I will explore the Biblical view of shrewdness in another post.Okay, with that as a foundation, let’s look at the competencies within shrewdness. I’m essentially breaking down and redeeming negative traits like “cunning,” “conniving,” “crafty,” “calculating” and “conspiring”:

  • Strategery. I’ve adopted the term President George W. Bush coined to noun the verb strategize. There are two primary components to this quality:
    • Foresight: The ability to get up on the bridge and see the horizon in order to set the ship’s direction. This includes elements of abstract thinking, taking the broad view and not being bound to the current strategy.
    • Thinking and planning: The ability to anticipate and plan the steps and stages to get to that horizon, including anticipating and getting around perceived obstacles.

While few leaders may have both versions of strategery, both are useful elements of senior leadership, which mixes vision with implementation. And both can be noted early in young leaders. Look for those who are always asking “why?” and interested in context, the bigger picture. Look for those who are especially resourceful, who can negotiate tradeoffs or break down game theory. Yes, maybe there’s more to gamers than we give them credit for!

  • Street smarts. There’s an old military adage of disputed origins that was best summed up by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, as important as planning is, the question is how you adapt and roll with the punches. Street smarts brings wisdom to ground level and includes the ability to intuitively read an environment, handle situations with common sense and find a way through challenges. For those working in missions or other expatriate settings, such savviness may equate to cross-cultural adeptness. Of course, those with street smarts don’t necessarily play by the well-established game rules, and therefore you can anticipate the friction between this person and a system-protecting manager.
  • Creativity. Creative people find a way to do what needs to be done, which involves considering alternatives, seeing opportunity and taking risks. They may have a comfort with uncertainty and a wide-ranging set of interests. In fact, the ability to think laterally or draw applications from other fields that haven’t been tried in this field before might lead to a reputation for being “offbeat.” The challenge for senior leaders is to notice those who may be on the fringes and invite them into the center in order to harness their creativity for the good of the whole.
  • Timing. Shrewdness comes with an uncanny sense of timing. The right idea at the wrong time is just as likely to fail as the wrong idea itself. Successful entrepreneurs and breakthrough leaders are opportunistic in the best sense of that word. So watch for people who have an intuitive sense of the proper moment for change. But recognize that, early on in a career, such people may lack the courage or support to act on such instincts. That’s where a senior leader may be able to provide a safety net.
  • Influence. The DISC test affirms Influence as a legitimate leadership style. Those who shape the environment and win people over have innate understanding of interpersonal relationships and high emotional intelligence. When skilled, these people can be very persuasive. Patrick Lencioni calls this working genius “galvanizing”: the ability to figure out the wins for others and rally others to act on ideas. While influencers can certainly fall into manipulation and deceit, there are all kinds of positives to this trait. Look for indicators of it, even the unskilled or abused forms of it, and tap those traits for good.

At the beginning of this month I had a chance to watch a bit of track cycling at the velodrome in Japan. I had no idea just how cerebral some of those cycling races are. The sprints are a cat-and-mouse game, sometimes going incredibly slowly and then opening up to a frenetic scramble for the finish line. The omnium, with its many ways to make points or avoid elimination, requires a mix of: strong, pre-planned strategy; keeping track of other competitors; street smarts; agile reactions; opportunistic timing and the cunning use of small openings. Watching the British rider Matthew Walls pull ahead and then hold off the opposition over the four events of the omnium gave me a vivid picture of shrewdness.

When Jesus said his followers should be shrewd in Matthew 10:16, he made an important pairing: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Manipulative, deceitful individuals are not harmless or innocent. But there is a shrewdness that’s rightly directed toward good, that comes out in good business sense and savvy maneuvering of a Christ-follower in this present age. That edge is something that helps in senior leadership, and the signs of its presence are evident much earlier if you’re alert for them.

So that perhaps brings me to the end of this series, unless I missed something. Now I want your input. What megacompetencies did I miss? What other early indicators should we look for in a future C-suite leader?


Megacompetency Series

What leadership traits then look like now: Servant heart

In this series, the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like? I think this has relevance to other industries as well, because the competencies we’re considering would benefit every industry.

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. Last post, I covered the first megacompetency, resourcefulness. The second one I want to propose is:

2. Servant heart

There’s a glut of articles on servant leadership, so I won’t add to their number here. However, we’re talking about early indicators, and Robert Greenleaf himself said that the servant leader should be servant first. So it’s important to break down servanthood itself.

Early experiences shape a leader’s approach to problems, working with teams and handling of authority. The approach of numerous biblical leaders was shaped by years of serving, including Joseph, Aaron and Nehemiah.

Let’s park here for a minute before we get to the competencies. Attitudes and character are not the same as competencies. As I’ve written before, leadership training should never be given to someone who lacks character. Nothing builds character like serving, and nothing reveals character like being treated like a servant. A servant heart comes out in attitudes and attributes such as humility, selflessness and longsuffering (an archaic, but revealing way to articulate patience).

Now, those attitudes may not be evident in young leaders, because they are often developed by experience. How many brash, overconfident young people do you know who emerge from crisis, failure or loss with a greater maturity, self control and wisdom? The apostle Peter comes to mind. But there are some who are wired for service (Enneagram 2, for instance), transformed by the Holy Spirit or raised in conditions that hone early development of a servant heart.

But what makes servanthood a megacompetency? Let’s look at some of the specific competencies of a servant.

“As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.”

Think of period pieces like the TV show Downton Abbey or the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Picture a banquet table, with beautiful table settings and guests seating arrangements carefully planned. The servants stand still on the periphery of a room, trying not to be noticed, but where are their eyes focused? On their master’s hands, looking for the slightest indication of need before it can be expressed. Servants are good listeners, empathetic, with high levels of awareness and emotional intelligence. My wife and I refer to this trait as “radar” and long to build it into our kids so they will notice a door that needs to be held for someone, a car full of groceries that needs to be unloaded, or a person carrying a heavy load that could use some help.

  • Attentive. This is related, but I want to list it separately to draw out additional competencies:  reliability, trustworthiness and diligence—to listen to, carry out and follow up detailed instructions. One way to describe this attentiveness might be to call them a student of their master or boss.

Attentiveness also touches on proximity. An attendant by definition keeps his or her position by the master’s side. In a 1990 study of successful executives, John Kotter identified one of the most important leadership development opportunities as “visible leadership role models who were either very good or very bad.” A young leader can draw his or her own conclusions from close experience with another leader, so back-stage access combined with attentiveness will accelerate a leader’s development.

  • Prescient. The best servants don’t even require an indication of need, because they know the need before it happens. They are prescient—but in the sense of having foresight, not clairvoyance. Through study and paying attention over time, they know how their master operates and what his or her preferences are. Early indications might be commitment, loyalty, curiosity and a deep interest in people.
  • Forbearing. Another archaic word with no modern equivalent. Collins Dictionary says, “Someone who is forbearing behaves in a calm and sensible way at a time when they would have a right to be very upset or angry.” A servant has to have thick skin. In The Butler, protagonist Cecil Gaines mostly succeeds at ignoring or shrugging off slights and racist comments made in his presence while maintaining a functional working relationship with eight successive presidents from both parties and a wide range of personalities. Yes, this characteristic becomes more prevalent with age, but not exclusively; well before he began working at the White House, Cecil Gaines—and Eugene Allen, the real butler his character  is based on—had gained these skills by growing up on a plantation.
  • Stewardlike. Chuck Bentley at Crown Financial Ministries says that, while there are behavioral characteristics in a steward, the definition is simple:

“A good steward is someone who doesn’t see their own life, money, and possessions as their own.”

It’s often been observed that renters treat property differently than owners. But stewards are qualitatively different. They see their role as caretakers of someone else’s property, company, organizational unit or staff, but treat them in the way they would if they were owners. In a steward, you might find early indicators of competencies like duty, resource management, resourcefulness, and employee care and development.

If you want to find a leader for the future, look among your servants. But you will have to look; the problem with seeing potential in servants is that they don’t stand out. They can get typecast and limited because leaders don’t see or allow for their potential. For many years I wondered how cupbearing could have prepared Nehemiah for a governorship, and I resolved that question in my blog post From “lording servants” to “stooping lords”—which is probably my most extensive reflections on servanthood and servant leadership.

Servant heart is important to cover before I get to the next megacompetency, because this one gets at issues of character. My next one is easily misunderstood, and I’ve seen very little written about it.


Megacompetency Series

What leadership then looks like now: Resourcefulness

So the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them?

I covered the first part of the challenge in my previous post. The second challenge is to figure out what competencies to look for, and what the early version of those competencies might look like. How do you spot this kind of talent? The mission leader who proposed this challenge had a theory that you look for evidence of megacompetencies. These are broad competencies that are themselves a collection of competencies. He believes that makes it easier to watch for and cultivate early indicators. 

I want to propose three over my next three posts.

1. Resourcefulness

In the book, Topgrading, Brad Smart explores the ruthless leadership theory deployed by Jack Welch at GE: grade your executives each year and cut the bottom performers. I am not a fan of that ultra-competitive approach, and Simon Sinek offers a blistering critique of such finite thinking in The Infinite Game. However, I find Smart’s exploration of the competencies of “A players” to be helpful. Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

So, if you need resourceful leaders in the future, how do you spot these competencies now? They can be seen in the way kids play, in the way students juggle competing responsibilities, in the way young leaders approach challenges. As a matter of fact, resourcefulness can show up very early in life. For instance, consider Rex Davis. While his mother was showering, this 2-year-old grabbed the car keys, left their locked motel room, got into the car and started it up. Unfortunately for him, it was a manual transmission car parked in first gear, so when Rex started the car without stepping on the clutch, the car lurched forward—through the front wall and into the motel room. While police were investigating the accident, this “precocious” 2-year-old found the keys again and climbed back into the car. I suspect Rex Davis will be one to watch for the future.

But here’s the rub: early demonstrations of resourcefulness may look to managers like disobedience; not accepting a firm “no” and making an end run around the bureaucracy. Some of these unskilled expressions will be intensely frustrating to a manager who simply needs the job done. In those cases, it’s up to the senior leader to intervene and create appropriate expressions for those characteristics.


Megacompetency Series

What gets you there won’t get you here

11 years ago, the president of a mission networking organization approached me with an interesting challenge: He wanted to help the network’s member organizations develop candidates for the C-suite* 15 years from now. But how do you help mission agencies recognize high-level leadership traits early?

Now, if you’ve read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that many of the leadership skills and aptitudes that get you noticed or even help you succeed at lower levels of leadership are not the same as those needed for senior-level leadership. In fact, some of them might actually block your promotion path. So, if that’s the case, the converse might also be true: what gets you there might not get you here. What if the competencies that might make someone an excellent CEO, Senior VP or VP are actually skills that won’t advance your career early on? What if they’re not even appreciated at the lower levels in an organization?

What does a young person do with skills, interests or abilities that are not encouraged, or perhaps even suppressed? Some might hide those dreams, those desires for bigger picture thinking, those challenging questions. Others attempt to nip them in the bud, attempting to stifle the development of “negative traits.” In other cases, those traits become major sources of frustration—for the individual or for his or her boss.

Thankfully, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerged successfully from their early failures, losses and frustrations.

In other words, the ladder to high level leadership may not actually pass through typical lower levels of leadership. What if, instead of suppressing certain competencies, we drew them out and developed them independently of a young person’s current role, simply to prepare a future leader for the future? The working theory of the mission leader who approached me was that future C-suite leaders cannot be developed within the organization; in order to develop skills for a generalist leadership role, they need to participate in a cohort with others like them outside their organizations.

Think about your organization. Are you likely to encourage and develop C-suite kind of thinking and behaviour when it has no immediate benefit to the organization or the role that person currently fills? Do you provide outlets for these kinds of leaders? What could you do to ensure that their frustration doesn’t boil over and some other organization ends up benefitting from their leadership 15 years down the road?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can develop skills for the C-suite, you have to recognize those high-potential individuals in the first place. In my next post, we’ll look at the second part of this challenge: what do the early roots of C-suite leadership look like?

*The C-suite refers to all the “Chief” roles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer, etc.

Megacompetency Series

Leaders aren’t fruit-bearers

What is your leadership philosophy? If you were to take a hard look at your approach to the organizational unit you give leadership to, which of these images best portrays your style?

A Jabuticaba (left), a Coconut Palm (middle) or an Orange Tree (right)?

My leadership style is more like the orange tree. I don’t believe leaders are fruit-bearers, but fruit-cultivators. Let me explain.

My board says that the performance of the organization is equivalent to the performance of the president. That’s a huge job! Certainly it’s a heavier load than one person can carry. So my job is to peel parts of the role away and delegate them to competent people. Then my primary role becomes serving them and making them successful.

As I’ve reflected on this view of leadership, I realized a few things.

1. Fruit shouldn’t grow on the trunk. In a smaller organization or unit, a leader might be busy doing a lot of the work himself or herself. There may be exceptions, but my experience is that even in early stages of organizational growth, a successful leader will not hold onto activities long. Even the youngest orange trees don’t produce oranges next to the trunk. I constantly catch myself engaging in activities I enjoy doing, but which hold up the work of my leadership team, who need my help or energy to fulfill their roles. If I’m really successful at building my team, they will ask me why I’m doing a job rather than delegating it.

2. Building trust is my main line of work. As the primary trunk of the organization, I am uniquely able to spot healthiness and manage communication and resource flow so that I starve or prune leafy limbs and branches that demand resources without producing fruit, while feeding limbs and branches that are capable of producing results (Luke 13:6-9). Any activity that strengthens the cohesiveness of the tree and empowers the supporting limbs is well worth my attention. People often ask me how I get any work done with all the meetings I have to go to. My response is that my real work happens in meetings, because meetings are often the vehicle by which trust is built, communication flows best and a group can move forward together.

3. Leadership grows limbs. Any time I can create a new junction of smaller branches that spread out, the chance of fruit is highest. If I can spur ideas or get people together who can spark new thinking, I’ve best fulfilled my role.

I don’t know about you, but I think that Jabuticaba tree looks wrong. As a metaphor, it reflects an inverted leadership style where the limbs and leafs simply exist to bring resources to the fruit-bearing centre. That centralized style of leadership will leave followers feeling used while wearing out the leader who, as central to every initiative, will become the limiting factor.

Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead

It’s been a while since I’ve written on reluctant leadership, my original passion and motivation for this blog. But last week I saw an amazing article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal that made some excellent points. Let me write a preface for it and send you with expediency to the Wall Street Journal. It’s that good.

The article is built on the models of a handful of reluctant leaders, including Moses, George Washington, and Chuck Stokes (CEO of Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston), with President Dwight D. Eisenhower headlining the list. His motivation for running as president was the same as entering the military: his country needed him. So he approached both military service and public service with a reticence to put himself forward. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” That was Eisenhower’s m.o.

As I read the article, I was reminded of Jesus’ words:

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored. (Matthew 23:8-12, CEV)

My takeaways were in the discussion about the CEO and COO roles. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

Being an enthusiastic, charismatic, highly visible public figure with a lively Twitter account may add value, but those duties won’t coax a hesitant leader out of hiding. Some executives, like Mr. Stokes, would rather shut the office door and apply their vast experience to solving problems. Ideally, a leader excels at both, but let’s be honest. These proclivities rarely flower in the same pot.

Maybe we should start paying COOs like CEOs and invite the vice president to live in the White House, too. Or split the toughest jobs between people with complementary skills, as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff recently did by elevating his trusted operational chief, Keith Block, to the role of co-CEO.

Without further ado, go read the article (it should be free if you haven’t read anything on WSJ in a while).

eisenhower code

Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

Our polarization was manipulated!

“We have lost our ability to listen to alternate points of view, to compromise and reconcile. As the edges of our debates are so sharp, we find it necessary to approach every discussion with weaponized arguments.” —Marc Emmer

How did we get to this point? As I wrote last month on my President’s blog, it’s at least partly attributable to a deliberate campaign:

The news for weeks has been filled with a series of revelations on the full extent of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operation to drive wedges into western issues. Russia operated a massive “fake news” effort that targeted the 2016 political election in the U.S. They made social media posts “that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service… they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.” Russian third parties even went as far as paying coaches to offer self-defense classes for African Americans to increase the chance they would fight back against aggression. These coaches had no idea they were being manipulated by Russia.

We’ve been manipulated to hate each other! We’re standing here with fingers on the trigger only to discover that all of this tension we feel toward each other is the result of a carefully constructed plan! The person or group we thought hated us really doesn’t!

So now what do we do?

Let’s think tactically for a minute. When military commanders identify their opponent’s strategy, they try to work it for their advantage with an ambush. When intelligence officers identify their opponent’s strategy, they run counterintelligence operations and turn spies into double agents.

I’m not actually interested in how nations are responding to Russia’s strategy. I’m interested in how we respond as believers. As shocking as the scale of this operation is politically, it’s a familiar tactic to those of us in Christian ministry. Satan has been driving wedges for millennia against God’s purposes.

As I said in Driving Wedges,

As believers, exposing the strategy is the first step. But how do we wage an effective battle against a strategy to divide? Do we simply strengthen our defences and put up better firewalls against division? What would an offensive strategy look like? Would it mean trying to divide our opposition, responding in kind? Or could we intentionally pursue unity and collaboration?

The problem with seeking to respond in kind is that the ends don’t justify the means. God is just as concerned with how we wage war, and in our growth during the battle, as he is in the results. It’s the luxury he has in knowing he’s already won the war.

What tactics can we employ then?

First, redirect our anger. Turn it instead on the one who manipulated us and raised the stakes. No, it’s not actually Mr. Putin. Look behind him, because our battle is not with flesh and blood. We have a common enemy. It doesn’t mean we set aside our differences, but we make those differences secondary.

I was convicted a couple of weeks ago in Montreal when I heard a Catholic bishop point out that, when churches are in maintenance mode, they see each other as competitors. But when they are in mission mode, they see each other as collaborators. Division within the ranks of God’s kingdom is a luxury of peace and prosperity. When we’re united by a common enemy, we put our energy first into advancing the kingdom of God and putting the gates of Hell on their heels rather than promoting our own agenda or point of view. We can still pursue that while holding to our unique identity and beliefs.

Second, assume our positions are a whole lot closer than we’ve been led to believe. If we lay down our weapons and try to listen, seeking more light than heat, perhaps we will hear the heart behind the other side’s perspective. Remember the good advice that you can’t argue against someone until you understand the person’s argument well enough to articulate it yourself. Most of what North Americans believe about Muslims is simply not true. Most of what Republicans believe about Democrats is simply not true. One way to intentionally break those stereotypes is to broaden our media exposure to intentionally include the other perspective.

Earlier this year I found myself in a surreal situation. I was standing on a rooftop patio in a closed country, talking with a group of Muslim scholars interested in preserving indigenous languages in their country. So we had at least one area of common interest that brought us together. I wish I could have recorded the conversation when these Muslims began to rant against fellow countrymen doing violence in the name of Islam. Every time another attack takes place, they said, their job gets harder. People view them with more skepticism. Their country, their people and their religion are defamed. They yearn for peace in their country.

Third, learn to wage peace. The more time I spend in Canada, the more I appreciate some of the voices that have contributed to this country’s international reputation. One of those is the Anabaptist/Mennonite voice that has come out of the prairies. One author says their thinking has morphed over the past sixty years from quietism and passive nonresistance to activist peacemaking. It’s an art that defies the typical thinking that peace and unity are weak. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi showed us that nonviolent force can change the world.

One tool for waging peace is the third table. When two groups are so distant from each other that they can’t communicate, a third space is designed to allow for honest discussion around issues once each side steps away from their militarized zones. There’s no “home team advantage,” but a safe place to try on different lenses, listen well and find common ground.

A friend recently pointed out that I’m good at creating third spaces. When people present a binary decision, I often don’t buy the thinking, but instead seek another way. Perhaps it’s my upbringing as a third culture kid who moved from Ontario to the Deep South when he was eight. In my first year, I tried holding to my culture—at one point refusing to sing the U.S. national anthem. Then I tried assimilation, changing my clothes and dropping the unique way I pronounced certain words. Eventually I came to appreciate my neutrality and unique cross-border perspective. Perhaps it’s the fact I was born in Canada, which has a a multi-party political system, a propensity for apology, and a strength in active peacemaking around the world. Perhaps it’s my resilience and strategic mindset that finds a way when seemingly forced into a choice between two undesirable options. Perhaps it’s my experience in an interdenominational, intergenerational organization that values language and culture. Many of my edges have been broken off over the past twenty years.

Conclusion
I’m growing in my conviction that we’ve been manipulated, and we urgently need to craft a response. Believers need to take the lead, because we have tools the rest of the world desperately needs.

Believers, we need to realize we are at war. It’s Satan’s most effective strategy to convince us we aren’t. As we do that, our response needs to meet the Matthew 10:16 standard: shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves. The problem is that the world knows Christians as naive. Luke 16:8 points out, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Falling for peacetime thinking is perhaps chief evidence of our naiveté.

Being a Christian is not about denial—being nice and ignoring offence. Being a Christian is not about pretending someone didn’t mean to hurt you. Rather, it’s about being realistic about the hurt we’ve experienced, the world’s hatred of us and Satan’s hell-bent hunger to destroy us, and then intentionally choosing a counterintuitive weapon against those tactics. Turn the other cheek when antagonists expect retaliation. Show kindness to enemies when there’s no reason you should. Forgive the person who doesn’t deserve it.

Leaders, we have an important role here, challenging lazy thinking and crafting responses appropriate to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics. Our followers, our organizations, our churches and our countries are depending on us and looking to our lead. We need to assist them in fighting Satan’s strategies appropriately. For more, see my series on Wartime Leadership.